There's something about noodles that says comfort food. In Thai cuisine, there is a fabulous world of noodle dishes beyond the quintessential pad thai that are wildly different from one another, all delicious, and well worth seeking out.
Some dishes are popular as street food; others are home fare; some take so long to make people much prefer going out to eat them. In short, in Thailand, there is a diversity of experiences and settings for Thai noodle dishes.
In Hell's Kitchen, Yum Yum 3, is a great place to explore these specialties. The restaurant just revamped its menu to focus on Thai noodle dishes under a new chef and management, and eschews the use of MSG. And the value is a bargain: A small bowl of noodles sets you back a mere $6, if your appetite is small, or $9-$12 for a large bowl.
The setting is pleasant, hip, and ideal for get-togethers for small groups of friends or family, and dates. There is an eye-catching chandelier, leather banquettes, dim lighting, and the noise level of the music is low enough that you can converse. There's also some outdoor seating available.
The Famous Boat Noodles are named for their history of being served by boat vendors at the floating markets of Thailand. The broth is rich, savory, deep, complex, aromatic, is simmered long and slow, and probably the best part about the dish—so make sure to order the soup version. Tender cuts of braised pork match the sweet and savory nature of the dish to a tee. Pork balls and crisp bean sprouts round it out and the whole is topped with scallion and cilantro. Recommended with the thin rice noodles.
A very different noodle dish, but intense nonetheless, is the King (of Seafood) Tom Yum Noodles, served with shrimp and squid. Tom Yum, that quintessential Thai soup, is marked by the refreshing clear broth and known for being hot and sour—there's certainly the sour tang, which is very assertive here, and the spicy kick from the ground chili powder and bird's eye chilies, but you also have sweet and savory notes in the background. Then for texture as much as taste, there are the ground peanuts (essential to the dish, in my opinion, unless you're allergic), and the shrimp (left with tails on, a good sign in my book). The flavors in this tom yum are bold and strong—not for a shy palate. There's also a tom yum version with minced chicken.
Speaking of bold taste, just a note that compared to Thai standards, dishes here are served milder—no different than most Thai restaurants in the U.S, and I think that's a good thing for the majority of us. I still remember the last time I had my taste buds got burned off by a merciless jungle curry at a famed Queens Thai restaurant. As adventurous as I'd like to get sometimes, I still like to be able to taste my food, and I like to enjoy it.
Thai food is about harmony and balance between spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter. In the end, it's about what's balanced for your own palate, and that's why in Thailand, just like Yum Yum 3 does, there's often a caddy of condiments on the table so you can adjust the dish to your taste. And if you really want your dishes as spicy as the staff likes them, just add two heaping spoonfuls of ground chili, as they do.
Another, and overall milder, noodle dish is the popular Bamee (which means egg noodles) with roast pork. It comes with fresh crab meat, bean sprout, yu choy, fish balls in clear soup, and is topped with crushed peanuts, cilantro, scallions, and served with wedge of lime. It's easy to see why the egg noodles are the preferred noodles to go with the roasted pork—the golden richness of the egg noodles marries well with the sweetness of the pork, which was delicious. It was the one noodle dish I had "dry," with the broth on the side. I found that the dish was a little too sweet for me in its dry state, and would have been much more harmonious served with the lovely broth, which was clear and savory.
I had a side of the pork cracklings, which were crunchy, savory, and addictive the way only fried pork fat in any form can be addictive, and these weren't greasy at all. They were served with an assertive chili sauce.
How to Order the Noodles
The first decision is to decide which noodle dish your heart (or belly) is set on.
Then you'll need to choose whether to order your noodles in a soup or "dry," with a bowl of stock served on the side. You can ladle spoonfuls of broth over the noodles, or more commonly just drink the broth on the side.
Next, select the type of noodles: flat rice noodles, thin rice noodles, rice vermicelli, egg noodles, or glass noodles (which are made from mung beans). Some noodles may go better with some dishes (think of Italian pastas, some of which are shaped to hold the sauce better, or pastas made of different kind of flours imparting different flavors). But in the end, it is all about personal preference.
Finally after the dish arrives, you adjust the seasoning, again according to your taste. The condiment caddy on the table holds ground chili powder, plain white sugar, chili-lime sauce, and chili sauce. You don't necessarily see this at a lot of Thai restaurants in the U.S., but this is common in Thailand. Some of the fun lies in making the noodle dishes truly your own by tweaking the flavors to your exact preference. But the dishes, as they come, are delicious and already well-balanced if you prefer milder rather than spicier.
Other Thai Dishes and Drinks
Yum Yum 3 makes great noodle dishes, but being the third of Yum Yum restaurants, it knows how to cook up other Thai dishes as well, which are also on the menu here, from stir-fried wok specialties to salads.
"Yum Yum" may mean delicious in English, but in Thai, "Yum" means salad; I had the Yum Seafood Salad, presented beautifully in a large lettuce leaf: shrimp, squid—which were tender—alongside cherry tomatoes, seasoned with traditional Thai ingredients: lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice, chili, shallots, mint, cilantro. It was refreshing to the taste buds; and a little piece of art in and of itself.
I also tried the Curry Puffs: excellent, with delicate pastry encasing curried sweet potatoes, minced chicken, and onions, served alongside Thai pickles.
There are a couple of drinks which are very refreshing, the roselle (or hibiscus) and the chrysanthemum drinks, served in Mason jars for a low-key touch. Both happen to have cooling properties, which is just perfect for serving with Thai food. The chrysanthemum drink had lychees at the bottom of the jar. Note Yum Yum 3 does have beer and wine (ask your server for recommended pairings), but not a full bar like its predecessors Yum Yum Bangkok and Yum Yum Too.
The restaurant is open for dinner currently and will be open for lunch soon; lunch specials will run $8 for an appetizer, an entree, and a drink—a real bargain.
Yum Yum 3
658 9th Avenue (corner of 46th Street)
Dinner currently served Monday through Sunday. Due to open for lunch soon; call to check.
Closes at 1 a.m. every day.